The most powerful man in Tirin Kot, an arid stretch of southern Afghanistan, is not the provincial governor, nor the police chief, nor even the commander of the Afghan Army.

It is Matiullah Khan, the head of a private army that earns millions of dollars guarding NATO supply convoys and fights Taliban insurgents alongside American Special Forces.

In little more than two years, Matiullah, an illiterate former highway patrol commander, has grown stronger than the government of Oruzgan province, not only supplanting its role in providing security but usurping its other functions, his rivals say, like appointing public employees and doling out government largess.

For the Americans, who are racing to secure the country against a deadline set by President Barack Obama, the emergence of such strongmen is seen as a lesser evil, despite how compromised many of them are. In Matiullah's case, American commanders appear to have set aside reports that he connives with both drug smugglers and Taliban insurgents.

“The institutions of the government, in security and military terms, are not yet strong enough to be able to provide security,'' said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “But the situation is unsustainable and clearly needs to be resolved.”

Many Afghans say the Americans and their NATO partners are making a grave mistake by tolerating or encouraging warlords like Matiullah. These Afghans fear the Americans will leave behind an Afghan government too weak to do its work, and strongmen without any popular support.

Building a fortune

Matiullah does not look like one of the aging, pot-bellied warlords from Afghanistan's bygone wars. Long and thin, he wears black silk turbans and extends a pinky when he gestures to make a point. Matiullah's army is an unusual hybrid, too: a booming private business and a government—subsidised militia.

His main effort — and his biggest money maker — is securing the chaotic highway linking Kandahar to Tirin Kot for NATO convoys. One day each week, Matiullah declares the 100-mile highway open and deploys his gunmen up and down it. The highway cuts through an area thick with Taliban insurgents.

Matiullah keeps the highway safe, and he is paid well to do it. His company charges each NATO cargo truck $1,200 for safe passage, or $800 for smaller ones, his aides say. His income, according to one of his aides, is $2.5 million a month, an astronomical sum in a country as impoverished as this one.

American support

But Matiullah's role has grown beyond just business. His militia has been adopted by American Special Forces officers to gather intelligence and fight insurgents. Matiullah's compound sits about 100 yards from the U.S. Special Forces compound in Tirin Kot. A Special Forces officer, willing to speak about Matiullah only on the condition of anonymity, said his unit had an extensive relationship with Matiullah. “Matiullah is the best there is here,” the officer said.

With his NATO millions, and the American backing, Matiullah has grown into the strongest political and economic force in the region. He estimates that his salaries support 15,000 people in this impoverished province. He has built 70 mosques with his own money, endowed scholarships in Kabul and begun holding weekly meetings with area tribal leaders. His latest venture is a rock-crushing company that sells gravel to NATO bases.

This has irritated some local leaders, who say that the line between Matiullah's business interest and the government has disappeared.

Both Carter and Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, said they hoped to disband Matiullah's militia soon — or at least to bring it under formal government control. Matiullah's operation, the officials said, is one of at least 23 private security companies working in the area without any government license or oversight.

Carter said that while he had no direct proof in Matiullah's case, he harboured more general worries that the legions of unregulated Afghan security companies had a financial interest in prolonging chaos. In Matiullah's case, he said, that would mean attacking people who refused to use his security service or enlisting the Taliban to do it. Local Afghans said that Matiullah had done both of those things, although they would not speak publicly for fear of retribution.

Matiullah is causing other problems, Atmar said, alienating members of Afghan tribes not his own. He has also begun charging Afghans to ride on the highway. Doubts persist about Matiullah, especially about what he does when Afghan and American officials are somewhere else.

A U.S. intelligence report prepared for senior American commanders last spring listed a number of associates of Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's brother and the chairman of the provincial council of Kandahar province, who were suspected of involvement in the country's opium trade. The report listed Matiullah as one of the suspects, but provided few details.

Matiullah denied any contact with either insurgents or drug smugglers. “Never,” he said.

Meteoric rise

Like many Afghan leaders close to the Americans, Matiullah got his start after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, when the Americans were in desperate need of allies. Within a few years, Matiullah was the head of the Highway Police in Oruzgan province.

In 2006, out of concern that legions of officers were working with drug traffickers, the entire agency was abolished.

At a recent meeting inside the U.S. Special Forces compound here, Matiullah was approached by an elderly Afghan beggar who hobbled up and then stood at attention and saluted in military fashion. Without hesitating — indeed, without even looking — Matiullah pulled a wad of money out of his pocket and pressed it into the man's withered hands.

“Long live Matiullah, you are the best,” the old man said.

“OK, OK,” Matiullah said. “Now I am busy.” — New York Times News Service

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